Southern cooking has long been defined by fried chicken joints, barbecue pits, cast-iron skillets, and tin pie pans. But in The Potlikker Papers, James Beard Award winner and Southern Foodways Alliance director John T. Edge recounts a different history and evolution, one that encompasses cornbread and tamales.
After growing up in rural Georgia, Edge began searching for something tangible and recognizable about his culture. He watched the boundaries of Southern food grow far beyond black and white. In his new book, Edge looks at Southern food through the lens of its resilience and flexibility. What makes a food Southern, he argues, is that it is born under conditions of hardship and out of the spirit of change and ingenuity. In The Potlikker Papers, Edge characterizes the South as "a place that will be as Mexican as West African, as Korean as Irish, and lose none of its essential identity in the process."
Edge visits the Triangle this week to promote his new book. When he's in town, he sits down to eat with an appetite that's both hearty and critical, seeking out a chef's unique interpretation of place. If the chef succeeds, a warmth pervades the space that harkens to a family table. When Edge takes a seat at the restaurant of a first-generation Southerner, as he often finds himself doing, he feels especially grateful for receiving this welcome.
We asked him where he likes to explore the essence of new Southern cuisine in our backyard.
Fiesta Grill, Chapel hill
As he watched his son Jess sip a big glass of horchata at Fiesta Grill in Chapel Hill, Edge thought of the sweet tea he drank as a boy in rural Georgia. To his son, horchata is as Southern as sweet tea. Edge believes that all Southerners deserve a place to eat that reminds them of the first place they called home.
Crook's Corner, Chapel Hill
When Edge visits famed Crook's Corner in Chapel Hill, he knows the food is coming from head chef Bill Smith and his Mexican cooks. Influenced by Smith's eastern North Carolina upbringing and the back-of-the-house's Mexican roots, the restaurant menu serves classics alongside country ham baked in Mexican Coca-Cola, and spicy shrimp salsa served on soda crackers.
Jose and Sons, Raleigh
Too often, white Southern chefs get the credit for interpreting and expanding the boundaries of Southern cuisine. But, as Edge points out, many first-generation and immigrant chefs in the U.S. South meld food traditions on their own terms. He loves Raleigh's Jose and Sons for its Mexican-American chefs who are defining Mexican fusion. Serving brisket barbacoa braised in local Crank Arm beer, Jose and Sons gives us a taste of the future of Southern cooking.
Edge raves about the cooking of Cheetie Kumar, who leverages the food traditions of her native India with her creative spirit as a rock musician and a slew of global influences. If Garland is a harbinger of what's on the horizon for Southern culture, then the future will be both subversive and playful. Guests can enjoy a roti quesadilla and a pork loin bahn-mi at this nook beneath a music club, Kings, where no borders and boundaries seem to exist.
Brewery Bhavana, Raleigh
A new addition to the downtown scene by the brother-sister team behind Bida Manda, Brewery Bhavana represents multiple types of creative thinking. Serving plates like pai gu spareribs with boiled peanuts and Chinese black bean sauce, Bhavana is influenced by both the Mekong River Delta and the Carolina coast. More than just a culinary fusion, the space is also smart and forward-thinking about retail. With their flower shop and bookstore integrated into a dim sum counter and brewery, the Nolintha siblings and their team remind Raleigh that immigrants represent our nation's greatest innovative thinking and genius.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Horchata and Sweet Tea."